So Mayor Michelle Wu has cleaned house at the agency that has long maintained something of a stranglehold on small and mid-sized building projects throughout the city.
Well, so far, so good.
But it will take a lot more than changing the cast of characters at the Zoning Board of Appeals to bring real reform to the process still governed by an antiquated and multilayered zoning code and a board structure, which dates back to 1956, that virtually invites conflicts of interest.
Wu has long complained about a “system characterized by broken promises, insider deals, and bribery and corruption charges,” as she did on these pages, in 2020 as a city councilor, calling Boston’s development approval process “political through and through.”
She wasn’t wrong. One city official at the time was facing federal bribery charges and a member of the ZBA mentioned in connection with the scandal had just resigned. Wu at the time was demanding new board members with expertise in climate change and urban planning — and a change to the law that ties the hands of the mayor, requiring appointments from specific interest groups such as the Building Trades Council, the Boston Society of Architects, and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.
Now, working within the old parameters she so recently decried, Wu nominated three current ZBA members, including architect Hansy Better Barraza; Jeanne Pinado, filling the Greater Boston Real Estate slot; and Sherry Dong of Dorchester in one of the two neighborhood organization slots. Among those jettisoned from the board is longtime chair Christine Araujo, who had served on the board since 1998 and who announced her “resignation” Sunday.
With all but one member in “holdover” status, Wu made 10 other appointments, which will need to be confirmed by the Boston City Council. The board consists of seven members and seven alternates, who are empowered to vote in the event the “primary” member in their category is absent.
And that is yet another indication of just how arcane the original enabling statute is. If Wu is able to make the best of it, well, good for her. But it doesn’t solve the larger issues that she was so intent on solving — providing diversity of professional backgrounds and skills without leaving board members open to charges of insider dealing or even intentional insider obstructionism.
Changing the board’s makeup would require a home rule petition and that would need approval by the Legislature and the governor. The home rule petition drafted during the Walsh administration and approved when Wu was on the council died on the vine on Beacon Hill. In a statement from her office, the mayor says she still supports the measure to expand the board and make other reforms. But she has yet to refile her own bill.
And barring changes in the zoning code, hundreds of appeals will still have to be filed before the board for a host of small projects that in every other city and town would be routine building permit matters — a roof deck or garage or an in-law apartment. A Globe analysis found that since the start of the year the ZBA approved 395 projects and denied 72.
The byzantine zoning code is the purview of the Boston Zoning Commission, which could — with a push from the mayor and her new Chief of Planning Arthur Jemison — make some in-roads on that process.
“Boston’s zoning map is like a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle,” real estate attorney Marc LaCasse told the Globe editorial board. “It’s gerrymandering to a mindboggling extent.”
The result is that there are pockets of single-family zoning that could easily be multifamily zoned, which would allow developers to build more housing at lower price points without costly and onerous reviews.
“It’s something we need to start talking about if we want to increase the supply of housing in the city,” LaCasse added.
It was a sentiment echoed by Pinado, a longtime nonprofit housing developer now working for real estate brokerage Colliers.
“I would hope that the BPDA [the Boston Planning and Development Agency] is serious about neighborhood planning that results in new building,” she told the Globe. “And I hope to see less on the [ZBA] agenda as a result.”
In this case, less — less dealing with the trivial pursuits that bedevil homeowners looking to improve their properties — would definitely be more. And sweeping away zoning restrictions would make it less costly to build here.
Wu made a good start on the personnel side — and the council should have no problem ratifying her choices. But the tougher issues — the ones that can really make a difference in how this city copes with its housing crisis — must remain on her priority list.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.